A conversation with visionary founder Paul James

Paul James is the driving force, heart and soul behind EUBO, the extraordinary European Union Baroque Orchestra, relaunched under the Icons Foundation in 2022. He is the visionary who founded the orchestra in 1985 and alongside Emma Wilkinson, guided it for over 30 years. Even now, Paul James continues to play a vital role in the orchestra’s ongoing journey as an artistic advisor. Our conversation with him shines a light on the backstory of this inspiring youth initiative.

Part I: EUBO's early days and management practices

In this initial segment of our interview with Paul James, we rewind to the inception of EUBO and discuss its management practices over the past four decades.


Mr Paul James, EUBO was founded in 1985, almost 40 years ago. How did it all start and what was your vision at the time?

Well, the mid eighties was a very exciting time for the early music movement. There were a lot of orchestras starting up, like in the UK The English Concert and the Academy of Ancient Music; and abroad you had Les Arts Florissants, La Petite Bande in Belgium and so on. But they were all with very established players, and I could see that the problem was that there was no quick way for younger people to get into these orchestras. I was a music agent at the time, and in 1984 I realised that the following year was going to be the European Year of Music to celebrate the births of three great composers: J.S. Bach, Handel and Scarlatti. There should be a Europe-wide project, so I applied to form the European Baroque Orchestra, as it was then called. I got the biggest grant! It wasn’t very big, but I got the biggest one to start it. We started in 1985 in Oxford with the first group of musicians selected from the then member countries of the European Community. It included Alfredo Bernadini, who was our first oboe, Alberto Grazzi, our first bassoon, and so on, to familiar names now in the bigger picture. They were young students at the time. It was only supposed to be a one-year project, but it seemed such a good idea that everyone said: “Let’s try and continue!”.

It took quite a lot of work to set up a system: we did it first with the conductor and harpsichordist Ton Koopman. By 1987 we had the structure in place and were applying for grants from the European Commission through the European Parliament. We decided to run EUBO on an annual basis, selecting players, training them, taking them on tours throughout the year; then at the end of the year they would disband and it would start all over again the following year.

One of the reasons for this was that we would continue to increase the pool of talented young people, but also because it was very much an educational project as well as a cultural one. By renewing it every year, it guaranteed us the idea of moving forward and getting new groups of people and keeping the average age the same every year.

That’s really how it started. And then basically we just developed it from there.

How exactly were the auditions organised back then?

Well, in the very first years it was a bit different, but the most interesting thing is how we improved it quite quickly from about 1988 onwards. Basically, what we did was that we would go round all the conservatoires and all the main teachers of baroque instruments all over the world, actually, but obviously mainly in Europe, who we knew well by then. The students would be asked to come to a central place, usually in April, during the Easter holidays, before their final year in their conservatoire. We would have two courses of three to four days each, with about 60 people on each course. So we’d see about 120 students in total, and at the end we’d make a final selection of about 20 to 25 people to form that year’s orchestra. Then they would come together for the first tours, usually in early July, after most of them had finished their final exams at the conservatories. Then they would stay with us from July until Christmas, usually with about five tours of about two weeks each. About three of those tours would be with different musical directors playing different instruments. So if Ton Koopman was the main artistic director, he would obviously be playing the harpsichord and he would probably do the first tour and the fourth tour or something like that. Then we would have a violinist like Gottfried van der Goltz for the second tour, then we might have a cellist like Jaap ter Linden for another tour. It was always an important part of our philosophy that they should be players and not just conductors. Only very occasionally we had someone who actually stood up and waved a baton at the orchestra. Almost always they were playing an instrument. So very collaborative.

How many concerts would you do each year?

Normally we would do between 36 and 40 concerts. For each of our five tours we had five days of rehearsals and then about 10 days of touring with about six or seven concerts. Then we always had a few extra concerts, maybe in Brussels. There were quite a few festivals that took place in January, for example, or in March just before Easter. So we would keep the same orchestra for about 12 months until March of the following year. And then the following month, in April, we would start looking for and auditioning the new orchestra for the next season.

Were musicians allowed to be part of the orchestra for more than one year?

In principle, no. I mean, it wasn’t a hard and fast rule, but that was definitely the plan that everyone should come for one year. And as far as we know, for all the students who came, that’s the way they thought about it. It was like an extra year on top of their Masters’ course, which was preparing them for the professional life. Longer than that, it would have become a kind of almost unpaid job. We didn’t want to do that. We wanted to increase the number of players and get them out into the real world as soon as possible.


So far, part one of our conversation with Paul James. Stay tuned for more…